“Just look at the heads of his ordinary characters, categorize them, scrutinize them and tell me if this is not indeed an astonishing human menagerie!” – Octave Uzanne, Le Monde Moderne, 1899
That’s Jane Avril in the audience, dressed in chic black with the bemused expression; beside her – that’s the famous writer Édouard Dujardin leaning in a bit too close. All the motion of the piece, from Dujardin’s cane and Avril’s fan to the orchestral fiddleheads and conductorial arms, is outstretched toward the performer on stage: it’s Yvette Gilbert, so instantly recognizable from her tall, thin frame and long black gloves we (the viewers of the poster) don’t need to see her face. It seems like an incongruous way to advertise a “Singing Café,” but Lautrec knows the attraction isn’t so much the performer. It’s the whole scene itself, to see and be seen within it. In the middle of all is Jane Avril, with whom we instinctively identify: “It’s all a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?” This remains one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s greatest works because of its encoded subversiveness.
It looks like a trifle – a simple expression of joy. For paper manufacturers J. & E. Bella, it was far more than that. Throughout most of the 19th century, confetti was made out of plaster (of all substances!) shaped to resemble comfits or sugar lozenges they replaced. By Dickens’ time, showerings of confetti had turned into miniature wars, with the plaster turning black frock-coats white. People invented masks and duster coats to keep the plaster-dust out. Finally, after Paris banned plaster confetti, J. & E. Bella paper manufacturers introduced paper confetti – and Toulouse-Lautrec captured the joy of a young woman frolicking harmlessly amid a cloud of it. It was a hit, and this poster, with the new invention, literally changed the way people celebrate.
You’ll see this a lot: Toulouse-Lautrec falls in love with a woman from afar. This time it was Marcelle Lender, at the Théâtre des Variétés, dancing the bolero in an operetta-revue, a medieval revival called Chilpéric. Lautrec saw it nearly 20 times over, always from the same angle, “from one of the first tiers on the left, [lying] in wait with his sketch pad… No other lithograph is printed with such a wealth of subtle color combinations, and none embodies, as this does, the opulent decoration of an age moving toward its close” (Adriani, p. 157-161).
Summer, 1895. Lautrec and fellow artist Maurice Guibert are on board the steamer Le Chili, en route along the Atlantic coast from Le Havre to Bordeaux. Lautrec cannot keep his eyes off the young woman berthed in cabin No. 54. She’s meeting her husband in Senegal. Lautrec, suddenly obsessed, ignoring pleas from Guibert, refuses to get off the boat at Bordeaux. Finally, finally, he is persuaded off the boat at Lisbon. But not before he’s captured a photograph of the unknown woman, which he turned into a lithograph of the exact same pose, “exquisite both in its execution and in the remoteness of the subject’s personality” (Wagner, p. 31): ideal for the Salon des Cent, with its running themes of meditation, admiration and preoccupation.